Bending Technique In Blues
Before we get onto learning some licks, we should learn a bit about the technique of string bending because it is an essential technique if you want to start playing the blues! I'm hoping that you will have learned this technique as part of my Intermediate Method, but in this lesson we look at the technique specifically applied to Pattern 1 of The Minor Pentatonic scale and exercises that will help you use the bends in the correct places!
Learning to do the string bending technique correctly is absolutely essential if you want to start playing blues lead guitar. You will find that when you are doing the technique correctly it is actually very easy, but if you're doing it wrong it will feel very difficult and awkward.
Interesting to note is that there are very few people who bend strings using a different technique to the one shown, in fact I don't know of anyone famous who does it differently but am assuming there must be someone somewhere!
Using The Pivot Point
The most important part of the technique to get correct is using the pivot point where your first finger meets the guitar neck. The muscles that you use to bend the string are in your arm and not in your fingers. The muscles in your fingers are very small and by using the pivot you will create a lever that will make it a lot easier to bend the string with control and accuracy.
It's a LOT easier to understand the mechanics by watching the video than it is to explain in text! But I'll try...
1. Starting position
Grip the guitar neck with fretting hand, so the thumb is on top of the neck and the 'web' between thumb and index fingers is in contact with the back of the neck. The lower edge of the neck should be touching the side of your hand near to Finger 1. Palm should be facing toward the right (for right-handed player), little finger lowest to the ground.
The pivot point is next to finger 1, so make sure that point stays in contact with the guitar at all times, the thumb will stay over the top of the neck too. Slowly pivot your hand so that your palm is facing up. Repeat the motion a few times, making sure you don't lose contact at the pivot point.
3. Fold the fingers
No fold your fingers over at 90˚ to your hand and make the same pivot motion. Your fingers should be laying flat, hovering above all the strings (but not touching them) and now you should be able to understand the 'mechanics' of the bend.
Only when you have got the 'mechanics' of the correct movement should you try doing a bend! So if you are ready, place Finger 3 on the 8th fret of the second string, back it up with Finger 2 behind it to help and then try to bend up - don't worry too much about the tuning yet, we're just focusing on the mechanics. Start by doing this over and over and make sure it is your arms doing the bending and not your fingers.
5. Not Parallel
If your fingers are parallel to the frets you will be using the finger muscles which are very small compared to your arm muscles and you will not have much success if you continue this way! Start again and watch the video to make sure you are doing it right!
Intonation describes pitch accuracy. when you learn to bend a string you must learn to bend the string so the pitch moves from one note to another note - it is not just a random amount! Learning to bend in tune takes practice and in this lesson, we'll be looking at an exercise that will help you learn to bend in tune and it's something you must bear in mind for all the future lessons.
The guitar has frets and so when the instrument is in tune, you can only play 'out of tune' notes by using string bending (or using a whammy bar if you have one) - you can play a 'bad' note but it won't be out of tune. If any of you have been in the unfortunate position of listening to a child (or adult!) learn to play violin, you will know how awful it sounds when people play out of tune. A violin (and many other string instruments) does not have frets so the performer must place their finger exactly where the fret would be to make the note in tune, no easy task I can assure you - and it's the main challenge when a guitarist learns to play slide guitar as well, although having the frets as a guide is a big help.
You should work on the exercises as shown in the video as we'll be using these particular bends in licks very soon, but as you progress you should take the same idea and practice all over the guitar neck.
Be sure that you play the starting note, the note you are bending to, the starting note again and then perform the bend. Doing it this way will help you a great deal in getting your bends in tune, though for most people it takes a few months of practice do get it consistently right in tune, so you may well find yourself working on it for some time.
I still work on string bending even though I have been playing guitar now for over 30 years! I can get it in tune most of the time but it is one of the most expressive and unique tools in a guitarists skill set and so is something you will most likely find yourself revisiting even when you have mastered the basic technique.
The Dreaded Seagulls
Once you have bent your string and you have reached the pitch and you want the note to stop, you need to mute the string with your picking hand outer palm BEFORE you release the bend! You can choose not to do this later (and it will be easy) but for now it's essential that you learn this part of the technique too.
If you don't mute the note and start to release it you will get 'seagulls' at the end of your bends and unless you are doing it for special effect, will just sound silly.
Do your bend, then mute the strings with your picking hand, then release the note and continue! This might seem a lot to remember just now, but if you learn it now and make it all part of the technique, you won't develop a bad habit that is harder to correct later!
You will probably find that overdoing the exercise will hurt your fingers and take the skin from your fingertips quite quickly so I don't recommend that you are doing more than 2 x 5-minute practice sessions on this a day. Make sure you practice well and make the most of your time and you should find that you are getting it better after a couple of weeks.
I should also point out here that using thick strings will make bending significantly harder. For many students, it can be helpful to use '9' gauge strings when learning to bend and moving to '10' gauge when you are comfortable with the technique. Using a heavy gauge like '13' (like the great Stevie Ray Vaughn is rumoured to have used) will make it very difficult indeed and is not recommended. Many great country guitarists use '9' gauge because it is significantly easier and when complex bends are required is pretty much necessary.
Each lesson I want to recommend a great Blues album to you, make sure you are aware of the great blues music that you'll be learning on your journey.
Eric Clapton (w John Mayall) - Bluesbreakers [called the "Beano" album] (1966)
This John Mayall album featuring Eric Clapton blew my mind when I first heard it. Clapton's full of energy and the power of the band is awesome, and the album features some incredible lead solos and a brilliant cover of the Freddie King's song Hideaway.
Here's a sample backing track from my Jam Blues 4 collection, a Heavy Shuffle Blues in A. You jam over it and if you enjoy it, please consider buying the rest of the album, they're all great fun for jamming!
Doing your bending practice over a backing track will help keep your ear tuned in and make sure you're keeping the bends in tune (which is very tricky without some kind of reference!).